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A Haven's Sex and Sensibility

Protective parents -- straight and gay -- are objecting to racy storefronts in S.F.'s Castro district. Some merchants are defiant.

April 21, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Brody Paul and his kid brother Zander are making their after-school rounds in this city's Castro district -- one of the most openly gay neighborhoods in America.

Brody, 12, shops for mouthwash and Clearasil. His brother wants No. 2 pencils. Veterans of tolerant San Francisco, they're unfazed by the two women holding hands and the graffiti etched into the sidewalk: "Nick Loves Olaf."

But along Castro Street, the main business drag just two blocks from their home, the boys encounter images more difficult for children to digest. A video store where they regularly rent Disney films stocks triple-X gay porn flicks in plain view. Across the street, next to their favorite pizza joint, the front window of a gay sex shop called Rock Hard displays a large Day-Glo purple sex toy, leather trusses and graphic manuals.

"It's scary. It kind of makes you shudder," says Zander, who just turned 8.

"It's not scary," Brody corrects, offering a typical child's view of anything sexual. "It's just gross."

Although the Castro has long been called Boys Town, that moniker has assumed an ironic new meaning: The gay bastion is now an unlikely hub for families with children.

For more than a decade, heterosexual parents have been drawn to the quarter-mile-square Castro to raise their families in its quaint Victorian homes and small-town atmosphere. In recent years, the Castro's same-sex couples have also increasingly chosen to become parents, a revolution that has brought even more children.

In the Castro, restaurants oriented toward gay singles now offer child-size portions and even highchairs. One coffee shop features a hot chocolate "Castro Kids Special," a popular item during the morning rush that the owners call the "stroller hour."

At Cliff's Variety store, children shop for toy unicorns and jasmine-scented clay putty alongside cross-dressers perusing feather boas and rhinestone tiaras. And at this year's Gay Pride Parade in June, one float will celebrate gay families, featuring kids clad in construction-worker outfits and singing Village People songs.

But this new Castro has not emerged without tensions.

The racy storefront displays have pitted protective parents against equally militant gay residents. Many parents -- both heterosexual and gay -- say the suggestive ads are inappropriate for children. Gay activists want to preserve a sexually liberated atmosphere that embraces such gay-themed holidays as "Leather Day" and -- in celebration of hairy men -- "Bear Day."

Some complain that gay culture itself, which has long celebrated free sexual expression, is under attack -- not just by straights, but by gays and lesbians as well.

Last year, a lesbian mother of two, now 6 and 2, complained about a sadomasochistic tableau in a clothing shop window that featured a male mannequin chained to a toilet. "As an adult I find this disgusting," she wrote in an e-mail to city officials. "As a parent I find it unconscionable."

After failing to persuade merchants to post suggestive ads above the line of sight of small children, the mother, who asked not to be identified, said she plans to move from the Castro.

Another parent complained when an antiques store displayed a kitschy life-size statue of an aroused naked man. Owner Robert Hedric said he reluctantly covered the offending portion after police intervened.

Hedric, who is gay and said he moved from Germany to the Castro for its lively gay culture, worries that family-friendly sensibilities will quash the neighborhood's spirit. "What surprise is next? Are they going to outlaw the Gay Pride Parade?" he asked. "This is the Castro, not the Vatican."

Jeremy Paul, the father of Brody and Zander, doesn't expect Castro Street to be St. Peter's Square. But he was offended by syphilis-prevention ads posted around the neighborhood that featured a happy, tune-whistling cartoon penis. He was particularly incensed when a flier was left on the windshield of the family car, where his children found it.

"I'm happy people can enjoy a lifestyle that's denied to them back home in Kansas, but there are appropriate standards of behavior, regardless of your sexual orientation," said Paul, a building permit consultant.

Mark Welsh, the gay manager of Rock Hard, has toned down his displays -- but is now drawing a line. "I have always pushed the envelope to show what I can because if there's one place on the planet to flaunt sex, it's here," he said. "There's a place for these ads. Sex is why the Castro was founded."

Welsh, 50, who favors leather vests and form-fitting jeans, was once married and has an 18-year-old daughter who lived with him in the Castro for a decade. He said he never stopped her from wandering the neighborhood out of fear she might see a lurid window display -- even his own. "I raised her to know that it was OK for men to kiss and hold hands in public," he said.

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